Still waters run deep in Sabiha Sumar’s Khamosh Pani, which traces the cascading effects of the religious bigotry that marked Partition in 1947. The Pakistani director’s acclaimed debut feature makes an explicit connection between the violence faced by women during Partition and the repression they suffered when a wave of Islamisation swept across Pakistan in the 1970s.
Khamosh Pani takes place in 1979, the year Pakistan’s dictator Zia-ul-Haq declares an oppressive martial law and encourages a radical version of Islam. For Charkhi resident Ayesha, the changed circumstances lead to an estrangement from her son Saleem. Swayed by the promise of earning respect as a religious leader, Saleem turns his back both on his mother as well as his girlfriend, Zubeida.
An unwelcome visitor resurrects 1947 in 1979. Among a group of Indian Sikh pilgrims who visits the gurudwara near Ayesha’s village is her brother Jaswant. His presence reminds Ayesha of the time when she was Veero, a Sikh woman who refused to follow her family’s orders to kill herself during Partition in an attempt to avoid rape, abduction or conversion. Taken in by a Muslim man, Veero has since converted to Islam and adopted a new name – but the past has a nasty way of resurfacing.
The forced exchange of populations between the countries during the chaotic process of gaining freedom from British rule is succinctly captured in an exchange between Jaswant and Ayesha’s neighbour. I stayed here till 1947, Jaswant says. I came here in 1947, the neighbour reveals.
At the Locarno Film Festival’s 2003 edition, Khamosh Pani won the Best Film, Best Actress and Best Direction awards. The Punjabi-language film is being streamed on Eventscape Live.
Khamosh Pani commenced production in 2002 with talent from both Pakistan and India. The film has been written by Indian filmmaker Paromita Vohra. The cast includes Indian actors Kirron Kher (as Ayesha), Shilpa Shukla (as Zubeida), Navtej Johar (as Jaswant) and Pakistani actor Aamir Ali Malik (as Saleem). Sumar had been living in Delhi when she made Khamosh Pani. She drew on her own past, Partition literature and Urvashi Butalia’s seminal oral history The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India.
Butalia’s research uncovered horrific instances of women killed by their family members to protect their honour. She writes: “One of the myths that survivors increasingly – and tenaciously – hold on to is how communities and families held together in this time of crisis; how can they admit such disruption from inside, and by their own members?”
For Sumar, who now lives in Karachi, Khamosh Pani’s double-weave of bigotry down the ages continues to resonate in the subcontinent. The 60-year-old filmmaker recently made the documentary Azmaish, in which she and Indian actor Kalki Koechlin visit each other’s countries to understand the impact of escalating religious fundamentalism. In an interview with Scroll.in, Sumar spoke of the inspiration behind one of the most moving chronicles of the ghosts of Partition.
You made a series of documentaries before Khamosh Pani. What led to your first feature?
I had put together a story that was mine and my mother’s – meaning the 1979 generation that saw the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the loss of tolerance and the 1947 generation that witnessed the violent divide between Muslims and Hindus.
In 1979, my world had started to change like Ayesha’s and Zubeida’s because of the Islamisation process that had started to gain momentum. In 1947, it was the same religious bigotry that led to the carnage that accompanied our independence.
I wanted to tell the story of Ayesha and Zubeida with the hope that it would strike a chord with many people. But I was not sure. Now looking back on it, I feel that the film hasn’t lost relevance. In fact, and sadly so, it has gained greater relevance. It resonates with our contemporary lives in India and Pakistan. That’s what a film ought to do – it should live beyond its time. But in this instance, I wish we could look at Khamosh Pani and say, ‘I am glad we didn’t take that route.’
If the film could be part of history and not such a grim reminder of our present, that would have been better. But it turns out Khamosh Pani is as much a film about individuals as it is about two countries that lost each other in the frenzy of political greed and power and, sadly, this senseless, egoistic drive continues.
The film has a melancholic feel to it. Not so far from what our lives have become now. The film is a reminder of the path we took and the price we pay now.
Could Khamosh Pani have worked as a documentary too?
Originally, I had wanted to do a documentary about the abduction of women during Partition. I met Khushwant Singh sahib, Bhisham Sahni sahib and Urvashi Butalia during my research trip to India.
It was during this research trip that I changed my mind about making a documentary. I met a woman in Jangpura in Delhi. Let’s call her Chandni. She had lived in Charkhi, the village where there had been a lot of violence, where Sikh women were being prepared to jump into wells to save their community’s honour. Already in the village across the road women had given up their lives.
Chandni told me that she sat around the well in Charkhi with other women, watched over by their men, prepared to jump into the well if they were attacked. Two nights passed...the military came, there was commotion...her sentence trailed off. She tried to start again – ‘In that chaos I…’ she stopped again. Suddenly something clutched at my heart. I felt Chandni had been abducted. Neither of us spoke. After a stunned silence, I got up and left.
I was convinced that Chandni had been through some terrible violence. I was convinced she was a recovered woman. Then came the realisation that I could not bring deeply wounded women like Chandni to tell their stories on screen. I could not scratch their wounds and leave them to deal with something so painful.
Then the story of Khamosh Pani started forming in my mind. I wanted to tell Chandni’s story and that of many other women like her. I wanted it to be told in such a way that it connects with our present. The story had to have relevance. I wanted to connect it with what was happening in Pakistan during the Islamisation process. Why is it that women bear the brunt when a country is trying to forge a new identity? Why are women viewed as the repository of tradition and male honour?
During my research I came across references to the women’s decision to jump into wells. I questioned whose perspective those accounts were written from. Did women get bullied into ‘accepting’ the decision made by men? I refused to believe that women had voluntarily jumped into the well. The woman in me rejected that. I wanted to show my character as somebody who refuses to give in and takes charge of her life.
Apart from the literature and research, the film has a deeper personal connection for you: your family lived in India until 1947.
My parents and grandparents came from Bombay to Karachi in August 1947. My mother was from Nashik and my father was from Bombay. They had just gotten married that year, in April.
Both my grandmothers were in such denial. They kept saying that they were going to Pakistan for a holiday. It didn’t register with them that this was forever. After some months of being in Pakistan, they told my father, okay, let’s go back home now. I wonder how he felt when he had to tell them there is no going back? Even if there was a separation, why couldn’t it have been amicable? Why was it not executed in a politically mature and humane manner, as when Czech and Slovak separated?
The trunk that Ayesha has in the film comes from the story my grandmother told me about their journey by sea from Bombay to Karachi. On the ship was this man who looked disoriented. He was speaking to himself in Gujarati. He was carrying a trunk that he would open, take out things from it and then cry and hug his memories.
My family was watching this. They realised there was no one of his own on the boat. My grandmother started talking to him. He was inconsolable. She realised from the fragments he spoke that he had been through intense violence and lost his entire family in riots. His name was Abdul. My grandmother adopted him and took him home to Karachi. Abdul and my grandmother became best friends. As a child, I grew up watching Abdul in my grandmother’s house with his trunk under his bed. That trunk in the film comes from this memory.
Ayesha, or Veero, reminds of us the titular heroine from Bhisham Sahni’s short story.
I read Veero after meeting Bhisham sahib. Bhisham sahib didn’t want to get involved in my interpretation of his story but I must say Veero was a great inspiration, as were other stories around the theme of Partition.
Meeting Bhisham sahib was very romantic. I went to his house. It was raining. He came out in a long kurta and jeans holding an umbrella. It was so cool. There was an instant connect. We and talked for hours about Pakistan and India. I am deeply indebted to him for his insight. I would often call him and update him on the script. He was an incredible man and incredibly handsome too – it was love at first sight!
But unlike Bhisham Sahni’s Veero, Khamosh Pani ends on a tragic note for Ayesha. Do you still stand by this ending?
I would end the film in the same way. The ending is about self-determination, Ayesha’s ability to determine her own life. She isn’t going to live on the terms decided for her by Islamic fundamentalists. She is true to her character, to live life honestly on her own terms.
How did you enlist Indian filmmaker Paromita Vohra to write the screenplay?
I moved to Delhi in 1999 when my husband was invited as a Foreign Research Scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University. A very kind and generous friend, Sanjay Kak, introduced me to Paromita Vohra. She is amazingly talented and did a great job of turning the story into a screenplay. She brought deep understanding and sensitivity to the story.
How did you assemble your cast and crew? Where was Khamosh Pani filmed?
We had a German and French crew and Indian and Pakistani actors. I did consider casting a Pakistani actress for the role of Ayesha. But in Kirron Kher, I found she could connect to the story in an authentic way – she is Sikh.
We shot in Wah village, which is very close to the Punjasahib gurudwara. I wanted to shoot in a real village that was close to the gurduwara. I did a recce in Punjasahib and asked my driver to take me to a nearby village and he brought me to Wah – a stunning village where I could see my story take life. I could have chosen the real Charkhi but it didn’t look like it used to.
Then, and even now, Pakistan doesn’t have a strong infrastructure for filmmaking though it’s getting better day by day. But 20 years ago, since we started filming in 2002, we built the infrastructure from scratch, which opened the doors for so many people. My company, Vidhi Films, along with my French and German co-producers, invested in a three-month training programme for the local crew before actual prep for the shoot began.
As a director, I work on pairing my actors together so that they come to their own understanding of their relationship in the story. For example, it was very important for Aamir, who played Salim, to spend time with Kirron who was playing his mother. Aamir was not an actor, he was a shy, talented and passionate young man who would kill to be in the film. I knew he would be intimidated by Kirron as a well-known actress. But Kirron was so gracious. She immediately took to him and invited him to join her in her shopping trips. They really bonded. That bond comes through in the film.
Was the film released in Pakistan?
In Pakistan, cinemas had practically shut down after the martial law in 1979. It was only in 2011 or so that our cinemas started to resurrect.
I very much wanted the film to be shown in Pakistan but we were at a loss as to how to do so. We decided to create a travelling cinema. We got a truck, loaded it with a screen, projector and speakers and travelled the length and breadth of Pakistan.
Our Pakistani premiere was in Wah. It was the most exhilarating moment of my life. A sea of people watched the film in absolute silence. A standing ovation in your own country has a different meaning. We had an amazing question-and-answer session where women and young men both found a cathartic moment in Khamosh Pani.
We did 41 such screenings across Pakistan mostly in small towns and villages where the story resonated with the people. In India, it was released by Shringar Films.